Fifth Circuit Upholds Breach of Contract Claim by Former Jackson State Women’s Basketball Coach, Reverses on Invasion of Privacy Claim

Mar 26, 2021

By Erica J. Zonder

Jackson State University’s Head Women’s Basketball coach, Denise Taylor-Travis, was terminated “for cause” in May 2011.  She subsequently sued the university for breach of contract, breach of the implied covenant of good faith, invasion of privacy, and sex discrimination and retaliation in violation of Title VII and Title IX.  The parties agreed that a jury would rule on the federal claims, the court would rule on the invasion of privacy claims, and subsequently agreed that a jury would also rule on the other state law claims.  The jury found in Taylor-Travis’s favor on the breach of contract claim, awarding her $182,000 (the amount remaining on her contract) while the district court additionally found in her favor on the privacy claim, awarding her $200,000.  The jury imposed no other liabilities on the university for the remaining claims.  Both parties appealed the rulings, ultimately resulting in a 2021 Fifth Circuit finding that upheld the breach of contract verdict, reversed the privacy award, and further affirmed the denial of a new trial on the Title IX claim.

Facts

Jackson State University (JSU) terminated Taylor-Travis after team complaints about nine kinds of inappropriate conduct, including verbal abuse, questioning student-athletes about their sexual orientation, and drinking alcohol while traveling with the team.  JSU also alleged that Taylor-Travis violated university policies by “misallocating and misusing” university funds, totaling $4,544.44 (Taylor-Travis v. Jackson State Univ., 2021, p. 6).  A local newspaper, The Clarion-Ledger, had filed a public records request regarding the situation prior to the official termination, and JSU shared nine pages of information, ultimately leading to the newspaper posting about the reasons for termination online.

Breach of Contract

Taylor-Travis contended at trial that “she had done nothing wrong” and that other male coaches had done similar things regarding expenses without being reprimanded (Taylor-Travis v. Jackson State Univ., 2017, p. 10).  And further that because other coaches had done similar things and were not fired, JSU’s offered reasons must be pretextual and she had never been warned or reprimanded in the past.  She also claimed that she was “kind and caring” towards her student-athletes (p. 10) and offered evidence to refute her abuse and other allegations.  The jury agreed with Travis-Taylor.  JSU filed a post-trial motion requesting a judgement as a matter of law (JMOL).  The court found that JSU’s failed arguments included a mis-reliance on Hoffman, which stands for the proposition that a failure by an employer to act on past performance issues/incidents does not preclude it from acting now (p. 11), whereas this case involves a comparison of employee malfeasance.  The court also found JSU’s arguments that the school had a good-faith belief that Taylor-Travis had violated her contract, citing Silvestri’s holding that employment contracts are governed by subjective standards (p. 11), to be unpersuasive.  According to the courts, three main issues were decided reasonably by the jury after conflicting testimony – no one had been fired or reprimanded for similar actions regarding reimbursement of  personal expenses, she had never been warned that she was using funds inappropriately, and the sexual harassment/orientation claims were just her trying to protect a student-athlete from an abusive relationship regardless of sexual orientation – therefore JSU terminated her contract without good cause and JSU was not entitled to the relief sought.  JSU appealed to the Fifth Circuit.

On appeal, the Fifth Circuit held that the district court did not err in denying JSU’s motion for JMOL as Taylor-Travis’s testimony “provided legally sufficient evidence for the jury’s conclusion that she did not mistreat her players” in a manner that could trigger a for cause firing (Taylor-Travis v. Jackson State Univ., 2021, p. 1).  JSU had requested a specific jury instruction, including language that the jury must not consider length of employment, failure to discover misconduct sooner, and whether similar conduct by other employees was tolerated.  The district court had refused this instruction and the Fifth Circuit found that instruction to be “not a substantially correct statement of law” and further agreed that Hoffman was not a proper comparison (p. 9).   JSU also argued that the district court improperly challenged the credibility of witnesses in front of the jury, but didn’t object at trial, therefore triggering a plain error review to which the Fifth Circuit determined did not constitute plain error or ground for a new trial (p. 10).  The district court’s judgment on the breach of contract claim was affirmed.

Invasion of Privacy

The district court found that JSU breached Taylor-Travis’s privacy.  She claimed the release of relevant documents, including parts of her employment record, to the local newspaper should be considered a public disclosure of private facts.  JSU, in the post-trial motion, countered that facts/allegations of misconduct are not materially the same as say, the release of medical records (p. 16) and the newspaper did the releasing, after the public records request.  The court found this position to have “no merit” (p. 17) and that the schools should have reasonably foreseen that the paper would disclose.  The court also stated that this release would be considered “highly offensive to an ordinary person,” that JSU failed to include her public figure status in its defense, and the facts released were not a legitimate public concern.  JSU appealed this as well.

On appeal, the Fifth Circuit’s decision hinged on (b) in the Second Restatement of Torts: “is not a legitimate concern to the public (p. 11).”  The Fifth Circuit disagreed with the district court on this, as Taylor-Travis “admitted” that as a head coach at a major public university, she was in the public eye as well as responding “correct” when asked if her termination was of public interest (p. 12).   The Fifth Circuit also distinguished between common law invasion of privacy claims and a violation of the Mississippi Public Records Act, making JSU’s potential violation of this statutory provision (as relied on by the district court) irrelevant to the final determination here.  The Fifth Circuit reversed and remanded to the district court with instructions to enter judgment in favor of JSU on the invasion of privacy claim.

Title IX Retaliation

Taylor-Travis alleged an improper jury instruction on the Title IX retaliation issue, motioning for a new trial.  According to Taylor-Travis, “but for” was the proper standard per the overturning of Lowery by the Unites States Supreme Court in Jackson, not “the sole or only reason” (p. 23) standard relied upon herein. The Court found Lowery to remain binding and different in kind from Jackson, denying her motion.  She appealed.

The question before the Fifth Circuit was whether an improper jury instruction was given.  Taylor-Travis objected to the “solely as a consequence” piece and again argued that Lowery had been overruled by the Supreme Court and a “but for” causation standard had been implemented.  Here, the Fifth Circuit concluded that Lowery did not actually impose a sole causation standard and that interpretation “stretches” Lowery too far (p. 13).  Instead, Lowery stands for the idea that a Title IX retaliation claim could not be based on a complaint about conduct prohibited by Title VII, and did not focus on the causation standard in Title IX claims (p. 13).  And regardless, according to the Fifth Circuit, the jury instruction substantially covered the correct standard that there had to be a causal connection between the Title IX complaint and the adverse employment action as the “solely as a consequence” language must be considered in the context of the entire jury instruction. The Fifth Circuit found the instruction to be “not a model of clarity” but it did not impose a heightened causation standard (p. 14).  Therefore, there was no abuse of discretion and no grounds for a new trial.

Ultimately Taylor-Travis was awarded $182,000, as the $200,000 invasion of privacy award was vacated.  A 2016 settlement for allegedly less than the original $382,000 (Gates, 2017) was never approved by the College Board.  JSU spent at least $206,000 on legal fees (Donald, 2021).  The Fifth Circuit decision could be the end of a lawsuit that spanned over nine years, but it bears watching for further appeal on the Title IX retaliation issues.

References (partial):

Donald, CJ (January 22, 2021). University must pay former basketball coach $182K for breach of employment contract, Fifth Circuit says.  Medium.com.

Retrieved from https://medium.com/legalcommentary/university-must-pay-former-basketball-coach-182k-for-breach-of-employment-contract-fifth-circuit-16e85a090d28

Gates, J.E. (December 4, 2017).  Federal Judge says JSU must pay $382,000 judgment.  Clarionledger.com.  Retrieved from https://www.clarionledger.com/story/news/2017/12/04/federal-judge-says-jsu-must-pay-382-000-judgment/918924001/

Taylor-Travis v. Jackson State University. No. 17-60856 (5th Circuit, January 6, 2021).

Taylor-Travis v. Jackson State University. No. 3:12-CV-51-HTW-LRA. (S.D. Miss. December 22, 2017).

Erica J. Zonder, J.D., M.S. is an Associate Professor of Sport Management at Eastern Michigan University.

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